Off duty in rural America

For a rural cop, the same on-duty issues still exist off duty, such as: how long will it be until backup arrives?

As police police officers we work hard, long hours.  We have demanding mental and physical tasks to perform, and we look forward, especially toward the end of the week, to having those hours of the day when we are “off duty.” It’s time to relax, catch up on household chores, play with your kids, go fishing, or participate in whatever other hobbies you may have. If you work in a big city you can take off the uniform and be almost completely anonymous — just another person out getting groceries and wearing shorts and a T-shirt out. Many small town police officers, sheriff’s deputies, game wardens, and rangers, daydream about the possibility of going to get a gallon of milk at the store and having nobody know who you are.

Unfortunately we don’t have that luxury. When you work in a small town or no town at all, you don’t need a uniform and squad car to identify you as a law enforcement officer — everybody already knows.

Take-Home Squads
One could argue that having that squad in the driveway must be one heck of a crime deterrent. I would disagree and say that it is an open invitation for the local bad guy to come in and talk with you. At minimum it is an indicator of whether or not you are home or out working.

Can you see some potential problems here? If you’re out working, who is at your house? If you are home, where is the best place for somebody to find you in condition white?

If you are one of these “home office” officers, you have likely had a few people pay you a visit to ask a question or complain about a ticket/arrest. It’s not very likely that your local population understands that your “business hours” change from day to day depending on what shift you are working so it is possible that you will be running the lawn mower, working on the car, or playing with your kids when they stop by. This can create some interesting situations, and while most are relatively harmless we and our families should be prepared for one that is not.

Have you talked with your spouse and family about the “what if’s” that could arise because of your profession? What if an irate local bum shows up on the doorstep and decides to make an issue out of a past arrest? What if the situation becomes a use-of-force incident? Does your family know how to protect themselves? Do they know what should they do if you become involved in a use-of-force incident on your own front doorstep? What if your family becomes the target of retaliation? Think about these issues and make sure you have a family plan if trouble comes knocking on your door.

When to Act
Many officers I know that work in rural areas do not carry off duty, whether this is a good idea or bad is up to the individual, but here are some thoughts. When you think about our small town work environment, place yourself in that local convenience store paying for that gallon of milk when the robber comes in. Is there a chance that the crook will know you?

If the crook knows you are a cop and he believes you’re armed and you are not, which of you is likely to get shot, you or the bad guy? If the clerk knows you are a cop, will they inadvertently tell the bad guy? Will the clerk expect you to take action? These are some things to think about; the same could be said for any type of law enforcement problem in your community that you happen to be standing in the middle of, domestic dispute, disorderly conduct, etc.

Think About Backup
Keep in mind also that I’m talking about rural America here. We all have different hobbies and areas we frequent, so think about where you go and what you do off the clock. If you are a suburban cop, or someone from the big city, and you recreate out where I patrol, there is potential not only for law enforcement problems, but also some serious tactical issues unique to rural America.

And if you are a rural cop like me, the same issues that make life difficult on duty still exist off duty. If you decide to take action off duty, how long will you be there until backup arrives? Can you take someone into custody? Can you control them for 30 minutes (or a couple of hours) until backup arrives? What about two or three people? Will you have cell phone service? Do you have places in your area that identifying yourself as an off duty officer will create more of a problem that it will help? What other questions should you be asking yourself right about now?

All things to keep in mind before we take action because the old TV line: “It’s okay, I’m a cop” does not always work in our favor. We all need to remind ourselves that many officers have lost their lives while trying to do the right thing off the clock.

How to Act
Each situation we might encounter has a different need for our involvement (if any) and different tool to effectively handle the job. If you see an officer fighting for his life along a lonely stretch of road, you’d surely take action best described as “fast and unfriendly” but if you see a verbal argument in a parking lot it might best be handled with a phone call to the local on-duty officers.

It is our nature as law enforcement officers to want to take action on anything illegal, but keep it in the back of your mind that old saying: “those guns’ll get you into trouble that they can’t get you out.” Don’t just clip that badge and pistol on your belt beneath your un-tucked shirt and think you’re prepared. We have an array of tools at our disposal — don’t forget you can utilize any and all of the tools available to us: phones, notebook, camera, radio, handcuff/zip ties, spray, etc.

Pick the best one for the job, and pick the best time to use it.

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